After nearly a three-month, gruelling stretch of white ball cricket, the Test summer is finally here with the first match between Australia and the West Indies.
Australia heads into the match, starting at Perth Stadium from 1.20pm (AEDT), amid renewed controversy surrounding the departure of Justin Langer and a poor T20 World Cup campaign.
So can the Australians lift the mood in the cricketing public? And who is under pressure heading into the two-Test series?
These are the Burning Questions facing the Australians for the first Test.
Watch the first Test between Australia and the West Indies LIVE and ad-break free during play on Fox Cricket, and stream on Kayo. Coverage starts 11.50am AEDT Wednesday >
Cummins backs team amidst Langer drama | 02:20
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CAN THE AUSSIES SHAKE ANOTHER LOOMING SHADOW?
For the second-consecutive summer, Australia heads into the first Test with the shadow of off-field dramas looming large.
Last year it was the Tim Paine sexting scandal that caused plenty of external noise, and ultimately ended the former captain’s international career just days before the first Ashes Test.
This year, it’s the ongoing tension between former coach Justin Langer and Cricket Australia, with their messy disunion continuing to make headlines.
Langer has made it no secret that he felt aggrieved by how he was pushed out the Jolimont door in February, offered only a six-month renewal despite T20 World Cup and Ashes wins.
Last week, Langer stoked the flames by calling out anonymous “cowards” who leaked against him during his tenure, while saying he would’ve liked leaders, such as Pat Cummins and Aaron Finch, to have come forward with their concerns sooner.
Players have been relatively quiet since Langer’s explosive interview with the Backchat podcast, but the unrest remains.
Australia will take to the field in Perth on Wednesday to play in front of a parochial WA crowd where Langer is one of the state’s favourite sons. Cummins could even take the new ball from in front of the grandstand that’s named after Langer.
His presence will also be keenly felt throughout the summer given he will have a predominant role in covering it for Channel 7.
It’s no coincidence that the pressure on the players, and the renewal of the debate around Langer’s departure from CA, has come after Australia endured a poor T20 World Cup campaign.
Given Langer’s removal followed a string of favourable results, any dip in form is going to open the door to questions around the playing group, and new coach Andrew McDonald.
The flip side of the coin is that the moment Australia starts winning again, the debate likely goes away again.
That is the opinion of fast bowling legend Brett Lee who plotted the path for Australia to emerge from the saga while launching Foxtel’s ‘Game’s Greatest characters’ campaign.
“That’s to win. They have to win games of cricket,” Lee said. “The Australian public, they want to see Australia dominating in all formats of the game.”
Lara recalls Warne’s breakout moment | 03:55
HAVE THE STAKES BEEN RAISED FOR AN ASHES HERO?
Travis Head’s place in Australia’s starting XI is undisputed … on home soil.
The left-hander was the highest run-scorer during last summer’s Ashes campaign, named player-of-the-series after plundering 357 runs in four Tests, missing the SCG New Year’s Test due to a Covid-19 scare.
The 28-year-old averages 49.87 at home, with all four of his Test centuries taking place on Australian soil.
Head will almost certainly feature in all five Tests this summer, but next year’s tour of India could be a different story.
The South Australian averages 23.76 with the bat in 11 away Tests, passing fifty just twice in 19 knocks.
During recent Test tours to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Head mustered 91 runs at 15.17. Worryingly, he fell victim to spin five times in seven innings.
National selectors would be tempted to axe Head in favour of a subcontinent specialist when Australia travel to India in February – Glenn Maxwell, Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb all boast Test fifties in India, with the latter in impeccable form in the Sheffield Shield.
As such, there’s extra pressure on Head to perform this summer compared to better players of spin, like Marnus Labuschagne and the vastly improved Usman Khawaja.
Head has no choice but to make it impossible for himself to be dropped for the India series by accumulating buckets of runs this summer.
Even a mediocre campaign could see a change in the guard for the highly-anticipated tour.
WILL AUSSIE CULT HERO GET HIS CHANCE?
Australia boasts the most intimidating bowling quartet in world cricket.
Despite an underwhelming T20 World Cup campaign, there is no doubt that Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are the best pace bowlers in the country.
Accompanied by veteran off-spinner Nathan Lyon, the West Indies batters will have their work cut out for them this summer.
It leaves Ashes hero Scott Boland, who averages 9.55 with the ball at Test level, waiting patiently on the sidelines for his next opportunity in Australian whites.
Barring injury, it’s unlikely that Boland will force his way into Australia’s starting XI this summer unless national selectors enforce a rotation policy, or opt for a horses-for-courses selection at the MCG, where the quick took 6-7 last year.
Australia rotated their pace bowlers during the 2019 Ashes campaign, but have been largely reluctant to do so on home soil. Boland, Michael Neser and Jhye Richardson got a run last summer, but that was mainly due to a rib injury to Hazlewood, and Cummins missing the Adelaide Test due to Covid close contact rules.
Khawaja refreshed ahead of West Indies | 03:09
The lack of rotation backfired drastically two summers ago, when Australia picked the same bowling attack for all four Tests of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy against India.
The exhausted Aussies couldn’t get the job done on day five of the Gabba Test, with the visitors defying the odds to claim an unforgettable 2-1 series victory.
The gaps between Tests this summer are slim, with all five matches against the West Indies and South Africa coming in quick succession.
It could be in Australia’s best interests to occasionally rest the quicks this summer, opening the door for Boland to make his long-awaited return to Test cricket.
Nonetheless, Australia great Mike Hussey said that the Boland may have to remain patient.
Asked by foxsports.com.au if Boland could feature this summer, he joked: “You’ve got to play him in Melbourne don’t you? He’s the MCG specialist.”
“These things have a way of sorting themselves out,” Hussey added. “Especially with fast bowlers. Injuries turn up quite often at the right time.
“And it’s nice there’s a bit of depth there. Scott Boland, he’s an outstanding bowler.
“It’s a hard team to get into from a bowling perspective, and that’s the way it should be for the Australian Test team … but it’s nice to know we have someone of that quality as soon as there’s an injury.”
SHOULD A LID BE KEPT ON SMITH EXCITEMENT?
There’s plenty of excitement surrounding Smith after he announced during the first ODI against England “I’m back, baby”.
Key technical changes that fell into place during the series has Smith hungry for runs — and the Australian cricket public is eager to see him pile them up.
Nonetheless, at risk of stating the obvious, Test cricket is literally a different ball game.
The white Kookaburra is docile in Australian conditions outside of the first few overs, while the red, and especially the pink, offer more movement for the bowlers.
As such, it’s likely Smith’s changes will be put to a sterner test than what they were against a tired English outfit, still with a playing hangover from winning the T20 World Cup.
“It won’t be easy (transferring to red/pink ball),” Hussey warned. “The West Indies have a decent attack and the conditions in Perth, and Adelaide for that matter with the pink ball, are generally pretty conducive to good bowling.
“Just because he’s made an adjustment and he’s got a few runs with it and he’s feeling confident doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get runs in the Test matches.”
Smith explains change in technique | 02:37
Nonetheless, Hussey said that Smith’s attitude while making scores of 80* and 94 against England is reason to maintain some excitement.
“He looks hungry and that’s a big thing with Steve Smith. When he’s sort of wanting to spend that time in the middle he’s a hard man to dismiss,” he said.
“His technique looked really good, he looked quite still at the crease, his balance looked great. He probably went back to the old Steve Smith really.
“He looked a little bit less frantic as well. He had his little intricacies but there wasn’t as much of those movements. He looked really in control of what he was trying to do.
“And it’s probably good that he’s made the adjustments for him to get some success with it in the middle straight away to give him confidence that this is the way he wants to go moving forward.”
CAN GREEN TICK A FINAL BOX?
Incredibly, this week’s series opener against the West Indies will be Cameron Green’s first Test in his home state.
West Australian cricket fans have not witnessed a Test match since 2019, with the state’s border restrictions making it nearly impossible for Perth to host international cricket during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Green, who made his Test debut in December 2020, will finally have an opportunity to don the baggy green in front of friends and family in the West Australian capital this week.
The all-rounder has become a stalwart in the Australian side following an impressive start to his Test career, averaging 36.15 with the bat and 32.12 with the ball after 14 matches.
The 23-year-old silenced any lingering doubters during last summer’s triumphant Ashes campaign, later scoring a gritty 77 on a tricky Galle wicket in June, helping Australia clinch a 10-wicket victory in the first Test against Sri Lanka.
But an elusive Test century remains the one milestone he is yet to achieve.
Green has passed 74 five times at Test level, falling short of triple figures on each occasion.
His talent is undeniable, but cementing his status as a matchwinner who can compile significant scores would be the natural next progression of his international career.
There is, of course, no need to panic. Australian cricket legend Steve Waugh did not muster a century until his 27th Test, finishing his career with 32 tons.
Warner’s warning for Green’s IPL dream | 01:14
IS THIS AN AUSSIE TEST FAREWELL FOR WARNER?
David Warner broke a 1043-day drought last week.
The left-hander’s 106 against England at the MCG was his first century in international cricket since January 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Importantly, Warner never lost form during that period, reaching fifty on 19 occasions across formats and winning player-of-the-tournament during the 2021 T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
But the veteran opener’s recent record in the game’s longest format remains cause for concern.
In his last 12 Test matches, Warner has averaged 28.65 with the bat, passing 50 just four times in 21 knocks. The New South Welshman’s most recent Test century came in January 2020, an unbeaten 111 against New Zealand at the SCG.
Warner recently confessed that he might retire from Tests in the next 12 months, meaning the upcoming Ashes tour could be his last challenge in Australian whites.
“Test cricket will probably be the first one to fall off,” he told Triple M’s Deadset Legends earlier this month.
“Potentially it could be my last 12 months in Test cricket.”
This summer could serve as a farewell tour of sorts for the 36-year-old, one final opportunity for Australian cricket fans to witness Warner ply his trade in red-ball cricket.
But the West Indies pace attack will not make it easy for him to add to his career tally of 24 Test centuries.